newsSchools & Higher Education

‘Persistent, threatening’ Jew-hatred at American U, federal complaint alleges

"Instead of taking prompt and effective steps to rectify this hostile environment as the law requires it to do, AU has ignored the discrimination and harassment," per the complaint.

The front gate at American University in Washington, D.C. Credit: 	Samschoe via Wikimedia Commons.
The front gate at American University in Washington, D.C. Credit: Samschoe via Wikimedia Commons.

A hostile environment towards Jews and Israelis has been growing for years at American University, in Washington, D.C., but has “intensified following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack against Israelis,” according to a 26-page complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Students “have been threatened, marginalized, shunned and made to feel unwelcome in their dormitories, classrooms and social spaces throughout the campus, which has become a hostile environment,” per the complaint, which the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Jewish on Campus filed on Wednesday.

That discrimination has occurred on the basis of “their Jewish shared ancestry and ethnic identity and Israeli national origin,” it alleges.

The university, located some four miles northwest of the White House and the National Mall, has a nearly 21% percent Jewish undergraduate population and about 17% of its Jewish graduate students are Jewish, according to Hillel International.

The 130-year-old private school, whose undergraduate enrollment is nearly 8,000 and which costs about $56,500 annually, ties for 105th in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of national universities.

At American University, antisemites have vandalized dorm doors and pro-Israel posters with swastikas and threats, have blocked students from attending classes and freely moving about campus and have torn down posters calling attention to Jewish hostages whom the Hamas terrorist organization continues to hold, per the complaint.

“Jewish students have been shunned and marginalized in classrooms by their peers and faculty,” it adds.

One flier was vandalized with the sentence “Death to the Zionists Hitler was right,” and a Jewish student received a text message from an unknown number, “I know who you are, jew,” per the complaint. Jewish students were also accused of “apartheid” and “genocide,” and called “Zionist killer,” “Zionist pig” and told, “You have blood on your hands,” it alleges.

American University in Washington, D.C.
American University in Washington, D.C. Credit: Duane Lempke Photography via Wikimedia Commons.

It further alleges that an American University professor paused—when showing images of anti-Israel protests to the class and praising them as powerful and meaningful—at a slide of a sign bearing a Star of David in a trash can with the caption, “Keep the world clean.” The professor, whose name is redacted, made eye contact with a Jewish student—also unnamed—and stared at her. The latter “was so uncomfortable she left the class in tears,” per the complaint, which notes that the student had previously emailed the professor explaining how disturbed she was after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack.

In other instances, the complaint charges, American University disciplined Jewish students for filming peers who vandalized hostage posters but not the vandals.

“Instead of taking prompt and effective steps to rectify this hostile environment as the law requires it to do, AU has ignored the discrimination and harassment that Jewish and Israeli students have endured on its campus,” the complaint adds. “The university has neglected to investigate antisemitic conduct or take the necessary steps to eliminate the mistreatment of the students who are being targeted on the basis of their Jewish shared ancestral and/or Israeli identities.”

In its actions—and alleged inactions—American University “is denying equal access to educational opportunities and services to Jewish students based on their shared ancestry, ethnicity, and national origin in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” per the complaint.

“Shamefully AU has repeatedly chosen to turn a blind eye to the antisemitism snowballing on its campus,” said Kenneth Marcus, founder and chairman of the Brandeis Center and a former U.S. assistant education secretary for civil rights.

“Not only has the university failed in its legal obligation to protect Jewish students from illegal targeting and harassment, it is attempting to bully those brave enough to speak up,” Marcus stated. “The university’s delinquency is reprehensible, and it only signals to the AU community there are no consequences for those who harass, threaten, assault or shun Jewish and Israeli students, emboldening those hostile to Jews even further.” 

Quad at American University in Washington, D.C.
The Quad at American University in Washington, D.C. Credit: Herrperry123 via Wikimedia Commons.

Julia Jassey, co-founder and CEO of Jewish on Campus, said that university administrators should give “consistent support” to students, “not harassment for standing up against antisemitism. Where the law is clear, AU officials have failed.”

“On campuses across the country, Jewish students have faced an unprecedented level of antisemitism since Oct. 7, including at AU,” Jassey said. “Ignoring these experiences is tantamount to tolerating them. We urge a swift investigation and a campus climate where no student has to endure such harassment.”

JNS sought comment from American University but did not hear back at press time. After this article ran, Matt Bennett, American’s vice president of communication, told JNS that the university received the letter that the Brandeis Center sent to the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights but received no complaint from the latter.

“We take these issues and any concerns in AU’s Jewish community seriously, and we review and address them. We will cooperate with any inquiries regarding our work to combat antisemitism,” Bennett said. “American University supports the safety, well-being and sense of belonging for our Jewish students, a community which has been and remains an important part of the fabric of our university.”

American has taken “decisive action,” including working with the FBI, enforcing its student conduct code, addressing antisemitism as part of its curriculum and engaging with Jewish groups—including Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League—to address Jew-hatred, he added.

“While we have made progress in combatting antisemitism, we know we have more work to do,” Bennett said.

The Education Department last updated its list of Title VI complaints on Jan. 16. The new complaint against American is not listed currently.

In December, Students Supporting Israel told JNS that American University was sanctioning students for filming antisemitic vandals.

In May, Alan Meltzer, an American University trustee, told JNS that he was financially supporting Israel studies at the school because education makes a difference.

“It’s difficult to change the facts, and if people are educated, then they are much better able to have a civil conversation and come to terms with each other,” he said at the time.

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